Daniel Webster adds another chapter to Robert Remini’s brilliant portrayal of America during the first half of the nineteenth century. Remini, the author of a definitive three-volume biography of Andrew Jackson, as well as a biography of Henry Clay and a study of Martin Van Buren, here continues his account of the statesmen who followed the revolutionary generation’s Founding Fathers and whose own careers ended on the eve of the Civil War. During those years, America began its transition from an agricultural to an industrial society, the so- called common man came into his own under the rubric of Jacksonian democracy, the modern political party system came into existence, and America’s imperial appetites continued on through the Southwest to the Pacific. This also was the era in which the tensions between the central government and the states increased significantly, sometimes over differing interpretations of the Constitution, sometimes because of economic and sectional rivalries, and not least because of the existence of slavery in the southern half of the United States.
Andrew Jackson’s presidency (1829-1837) is considered by many historians to be the beginning of the paradigm of the modern imperial presidency, but Jackson was something of an anomaly: Most of the chief executives during this period did not measure up to “Old Hickory” in either their image or their accomplishments. Rather, this was an era in which Congress largely dominated the American political scene, with such larger-than-life figures as Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Quincy Adams bestriding the congressional stage. This is the political world in which Daniel Webster sought his fortune and achieved his fame, becoming renowned in his own lifetime as one of America’s foremost statesmen, the most prominent senator along with Clay, the chief interpreter of the Constitution (second only to Chief Justice John Marshall), a successful secretary of state, and America’s most famous orator. Ironically, Webster also was a man out of time and a failure to himself and to many others when he died in 1852. Remini has written a masterful biography of the man to whom his admirers referred as the “Godlike Daniel” but who was “Black Dan” to his critics.
New Hampshire was Webster’s birthplace, in 1782, but it was primarily Massachusetts he represented in Congress. His family, to whom he was particularly loyal, came from old New England stock. Financial success eluded his father. Daniel, a sickly child and unsuited for the farmer’s life, briefly attended Phillips Exeter Academy, graduated from Dartmouth College in 1801, and, after reading for the law under several lawyers, was admitted to the bar in 1805. During these early years, he also began his career as an orator. A Federalist in an age of federal decline, he was elected to Congress in 1812. He argued his first case before the Supreme Court in 1814 and during the next several years was the leading practitioner before that court in major constitutional cases.
In 1819, in the notable Dartmouth College case, Webster convinced the court that the state of New Hampshire had no right to modify the colonial charter that established that institution, claiming that the rights of contract are sacred and cannot be aborted by government action. He famously closed his argument with the extraneous but effective words, “It is, sir, as I have said, a small college. And yet there are those who love it.” Although he had voted against chartering the Second Bank of the United States, in 1819 he defended the constitutionality of the institution when the state of Maryland attempted to tax the bank’s Baltimore branch. In McCulloch v. Maryland, he argued against Maryland, noting that the power to tax is the power to destroy and is thus unconstitutional. Webster again spoke in favor of the paramount power of the Constitution in Gibbons v. Ogden, claiming that the individual states have no right to regulate interstate commerce. In these and other cases, Webster was praised, at least by those who believed in a strong central government, as America’s chief interpreter of the Constitution.
Always a popular speaker, Webster always garnered large audiences with his court appearances. He also was in great demand for public occasions, and his oration at the two hundredth anniversary of the founding of Plymouth was reprinted countless times, remaining a staple for students well into the twentieth century. He worked hard on his speeches, and they often ran to several hours in their delivery (unlike Andrew Jackson, his nemesis, whose first inaugural speech lasted only ten minutes). Despite their length, he invariably held the audience enthralled, not least for the speeches he gave in the halls of Congress. To many the “Godlike Daniel” was America’s Demosthenes.
Webster was not always...
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